Robert Mapplethorpe

Hedi Slimane’s selection of works by Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–89) followed earlier selections from the late photographer’s oeuvre by Cindy Sherman (Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, 2003) and David Hockney (Alison Jacques Gallery, London, 2005). Slimane, Dior Homme’s artistic director as well as a photographer, steered viewers away from flowers and erotica toward portraits, still lifes, and several fetish objects. But the choices revealed his own penchant for rock music’s stylistic nihilism. (He dresses rock musicians and has made photography books about backstage ambiences.)

In the entry gallery a tiny frontal nude, Self-Portrait, Polaroid, 1972, showed Mapplethorpe wearing an ornamental necklace, circa 1970, an element from Untitled (12 Necklaces), which hung adjacent. Across the gallery the dreamy, St. Sebastian–like Michael, 1974, a yellow-toned headshot, had the top molding of the green-painted frame cut like an arrow, extending out and back toward the sitter’s mourning heart.

In the main gallery photographs were hung in pairs, such as Mapplethorpe in a leather jacket, Self-Portrait, 1983, next to the stylish punk in Tattoo Artist’s Son, 1984, and in suggestive groups of seven, either in storylike clusters or rows of portraits. The cluster of Skull, 1988, Tarantula, 1988, Gun Blast, 1985, Hand in Fire, 1985, Texas Gallery, 1980 (bare and dark with tree shadows made by the sun on a drawn shade), and two portraits of body-builder Lisa Lyons (covered in a monk’s robe and in shadow, tipping a fedora) could have been an ad for a fashionably noirish film, possibly by the curator. Portraits of New Wave rockers with greased hair dripping over their foreheads, the artist among them, hung opposite a row of period characters like Cookie Mueller and Deborah Harry, both from 1978.

The superficially religious Silver Mirror Cross, 1983, on the back wall, presided over fetishes made in a minimal-conceptual style. A mannequin head, Untitled (Head), no date, rested on the floor in a corner, covered in a brown cotton mesh similar to the fabric in one of the worn-out T-shirts in Untitled (Three T-Shirts), 1970, each stretched over a battered white picture frame. Two found daggers, Heart and Dagger, 1982, were set in heart frame behind wire-reinforced glass. And three mirrors—Mirror, 1971, a vertical with an X-cutting across it, and two dark-star-shaped, Star and Star (white), both from 1983—seemed to echo vanity’s mechanism, a camera and its objectified vanishing point.

Downstairs, two films were shown side by side: Mapplethorpe’s Still Moving/Patti Smith, 1978, showed his then girlfriend, changing from an Isadora Duncan peignoir into a boyish suit—without sound—and Slimane’s Social Mobility, 2005, depicted Marianne Faithfull’s hands, as she talked while flipping through early Mapplethorpe party portraits. Among them were a few undated color pictures of landscapes, prefiguring those of Jack Pierson by at least a decade and a half. Faithfull reminisced about “high society,” celebrities, English aristocrats, and forgotten hangers-on, remarking, “How beautiful we were. And how beautiful Robert was.”

Mapplethorpe treated himself and the people and things from his polymorphous society as sentimental objects. His staid black-and-white silver prints—portraits, flowers, and hard-bodied men—defined the period’s pictorial neoclassicism and an aesthetic of death, when photography became serious and grand, and when AIDS finished off a still-young sexual revolution. His objects were little more than stylized accessories for people who thought they could have and do everything. But the photographs live on, making one wonder how different the world would be had disease not killed so many—like Mapplethorpe—in the prime of life.

Jeff Rian